Ann Arbor Has Spirit

March 31, 2014

I was pleased to see this March 26 article in CNN Money about the Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library’s partnership with indie record label Ghostly International. In brief, the library will offer Ghostly’s entire digital catalog (and that of associated Spectral Sound), for free, to local library patrons. The songs can be streamed or downloaded, without DRM.

There are five things I like about this effort.

  1. As Ann Arbor IT guru Eli Neiberger puts it, the library is “finding unique value to return on the investment that taxpayers have made in us.” We pool small amounts of money from our stakeholders, find cool stuff not readily available to or discoverable by our patrons in other ways, and put it out there. 
  2. The library is taking a stand against DRM. Imagine a business model based not on friction, but on freedom and mutual respect.
  3. The content may be “free” to the patron, but the library is paying for it (through a flat fee). We’re not ripping off anyone; we respect the time of creators and the work of the aggregators.
  4. This is a local partnership. The future of librarianship has several dimensions, but a key one is a focus on our own backyards, mining the unique contributions and interests of our own communities. In theory, libraries should be the first to know about such entrepreneurial content creators. Kudos to the Ann Arbor folks for not only knowing what’s going on, but for building on their efforts.
  5. This library is trying something different. While we do have a number of experiments in the field, ALA says there are over 120,000 of all kinds of libraries in the US today. How many of those libraries are willing to risk a little money today to secure a vital future tomorrow?

This may be a radical statement, but it’s just possible that libraries have all the money they need to transform themselves right now. We just have to stop spending money on what doesn’t work (or work as well as it used to), and start trying things that might. 

This particular experiment is a thoughtful and clever one. I’d be willing to bet that it works out—for all parties.

JAMES LARUE is a writer, speaker, and consultant on the future of libraries. He can be reached at jlarue[at]